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Goodbye, CNN’s Chris Licht. But what’s the lesson?
CNN sought to move to a “center” that no longer exists
As I predicted yesterday, Chris Licht is out at CNN.
David Zaslav — CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns CNN — delivered the news this morning to CNN staff, noting that Licht’s job “was never going to be easy” and that Licht had “poured his heart and soul into it.”
What should CNN or any other media enterprise learn from this debacle?
The lesson is that Licht’s goal of shifting CNN from anti-Trump confrontation toward an imagined political center was doomed from the start, because there is no longer a political center.
For years now — since Newt Gingrich took over the House in 1995 — Americans have been moving toward either authoritarianism or democracy.
The old political center of “liberal” Republicans like Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller and “conservative” Democrats like Scoop Jackson and Joe Lieberman (and, some would say, Bill Clinton) has been disappearing. That old center fell halfway between those who wanted a larger government and those who wanted government to be smaller.
Before Newt there had been stirrings of right-wing authoritarianism — led by Father Coughlin, Huey Long, and Charles Lindbergh in the 1930s, Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, and George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Spiro Agnew in the 1960s. They weren’t interested in a smaller government. They wanted a government that would advance white Christian nationalism.
Newt took the next step, turning the growing anger of the non-college white working class into the beginnings of an authoritarian political movement that would undergird the Republican Party for the next 30 years.
Starting in 2016, Donald Trump was uniquely helpful to anyone who still had trouble making the choice between authoritarianism and democracy. Trump required they take sides.
Chris Licht’s predecessor at CNN was Jeff Zucker, who understood that the only big pool of viewers available to CNN were those who still believed in democracy. Zucker competed mightily with MSNBC for them.
Trump was helpful to Zucker in the same way he was helpful to Americans who had trouble making the choice. Trump forced viewers to choose between Fox News and the alternative, thereby giving Zucker’s CNN a fitting nemesis.
CNN’s new management came along at a time of establishment confusion over whether the old political center would return after Trump. America’s business establishment — including Warner Bros. Discovery billionaire John Malone — hoped it would. But that proved a pipe dream. The division between authoritarianism and democracy is now too deep. If anyone had any doubts, CNN’s Trump town hall should have erased them.
What especially confused Chris Licht and the rest of CNN’s management was the difference between being politically partisan and standing up against authoritarian demagogues. They assumed that holding Trump accountable for what he did (and continues to do) was inconsistent with so-called “balanced journalism.”
Wrong. It is not partisan to stand up for decency and democracy. That’s where CNN’s audience wanted — and presumably still wants — CNN to be.
That’s where most Americans want the nation to be.